This Bible study is based on a series of reflections about the meaning of discipleship by John Leach, an Anglican priest and discipleship adviser in the Diocese of Lincoln, which were first published in 2017 by the Bible Reading Fellowship. Where appropriate, I have given them a Methodist twist.
In Mark’s Gospel people are called to be disciples. This pattern isn’t quite so obvious in John’s Gospel, where sometimes his existing disciples bring new ones to Jesus. But Mark likes to keep things uncomplicated. We become disciples because we are called by Jesus to follow him.
This poses an awkward question. If we become disciples because Jesus calls us, why are there apparently so few of us? Is it because we can be disciples without going to church? Perhaps. Is it because we can become disciples without even realising that it’s happening? Maybe.
It is tempting to say that Jesus only calls the people who have heard his call and joined the Church. This was what the Calvinists concluded, people like John Calvin the French reformer who based himself in Geneva. It’s also what evangelical and Lutheran Christians in Germany believed.
They based their thinking on some of the things that St Paul says in his letters. We become disciples, we hear the call, because we are The Elect, people chosen by God to hear Jesus calling us. Everyone else is deaf to the call. Either they refuse to tune in, or they are tone deaf to the message, or they hear it at first but then the call is drowned out by the cares of the world. Only The Elect remain secure in the fold.
This is a neat solution to the problem of why the number of disciples is so small. But it isn’t John Wesley’s solution because he was an Arminian, a follower of the Dutch preacher Arminius, who taught that Jesus calls everyone to become disciples.
So what is John Wesley’s answer to the conundrum? He believes that Jesus is calling everyone, but some people have yet to tune in to the call. They may not be listening, but it’s our job to encourage them to hear the call. They may be tone deaf to the message, but we are responsible for helping them to recognise the notes. If the call is drowned out by the cares of the world our response shouldn’t be to abandon the lost to their fate, but to go and seek them.
That means Jesus is calling each one of us. He has a unique calling for us to follow, a special song for us to sing. If people aren’t members of the Church, could they be answering the call in other ways or do we need to redouble our efforts to connect them to the message?
When people imagine they are The Elect they can be rather smug about the rest of the community, who don’t belong to the Church. They can write them off as a totally lost cause and become an inward looking club. And, if they want to, they can find some justification for this stance in Jesus’ stern instruction to the unclean spirits he cast out not to make him known to the multitude.
Interestingly, this wasn’t John Calvin’s approach. He rounded up everyone in Geneva and made them come to church. His argument was that we never know whether or not we are still being called to follow Jesus’ call. We may be deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’ve been called when deep in our hearts we have yet to respond. Or we may obstinately try to resist the call, to stay away from Jesus’ circle, when - like St Paul - we’re destined to become his followers in the end.
John Wesley’s solution takes some of the angst out of becoming a disciple, but none of the uncertainty. Anyone can become one, anyone can hear the call and respond, but equally everyone can slide backwards into disobedience or unbelief.
What Wesley does do is challenge us to find ways of bringing other people to the point where they can hear, and are confronted by, the call. Today that’s not so easy. It means going out to meet people where they are rather than waiting for them to come to us. It means finding imaginative ways of connecting them to Jesus’ message, so that they can encounter his call for themselves. It means welcoming them when they find their way to him, even if it challenges and changes the way we do things and the way we expect discipleship to be. It means never giving up, because reaching out is what disciples do.
For further reflection
For further reflection
- Can people become disciples without joining a church community?
- Can people become unconscious disciples of Jesus just by following his way of living, without actively deciding to follow him or even knowing what he taught?
- Why do people not respond to Jesus’ call when they hear it? Is it because they decide not to, or because they don’t appreciate what’s involved, or because other things crowd him out of their lives?
- Why do some people take a long time to answer his call?
- How can we help bring people we know to the point where they are receptive to Jesus’ call to discipleship?
- How can we take his call out to people where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to us?
- How can we welcome new disciples, and how open are we to changing what we do to make them feel that they belong?
- Is reaching out to people who don’t yet belong the main focus of what we do?
- What lessons can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the Church?